Willem Elsschot, Cheese

Cheese was a gift from my friend Alie, who has suffered through my cheese-shopping every time I’ve visited her.

 

From a column a couple of weeks ago. The original version contained references to The Simpsons, Lily Allen and Camus. In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing that wordcount constraints forced me to take them out.

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For obvious reasons a picture has been circulating over the last few days on the internet, claiming that it is easier for people in the USA to buy guns than to buy French cheese, which is illegal. It turns out that this is not entirely true; cheeses made from raw milk that have not been aged a minimum amount of time are banned. So Americans can still buy newer or less ‘authentic’ sorts made from pasteurised milk. Apparently people have in the past contracted illnesses from raw milk cheese (guns, presumably, have never harmed anyone). The point of all this is that cheese can be very dangerous, even if you’ve never dropped a wheel of Gouda on your foot.

That is certainly the case in Willem Elsschot’s novel Cheese (Kaas in the original Dutch). Frans Laarmans is a middle-class, married man who works as a clerk in Antwerp. Despite his constant fears about how others see him, Laarmans seems reasonably content until becomes entangled with the rich Van Schoonbeke and his friends whose lifestyles and conversation intimidate him. Acting on a tip from Van Schoonbeke, Laarmans switches professions, becoming the Belgian representative of a company selling Edam cheese. There are obvious problems with this plan from the start; Laarmans has never sold anything in his life. And he doesn’t like cheese.

In no time at all then, Laarmans finds himself in possession of two tonnes of Edam, with no idea of what to do with it. As the situation snowballs into something further and further out of his control he is elected Vice President of the Association of Belgian Cheese Merchants, and gains more and more respect from Van Schoonbeke’s friends. Not knowing anything about his own profession does not seem to be harming Laarmans’ social prospects, as long as he has office stationery with an impressive letterhead. But the fact of those two tonnes of cheese is always on his mind. He takes to the most childish of measures, including pretending not to be home when his boss comes to visit.

In his introduction to my edition of Cheese, translator Paul Vincent mentions that Elsschot refused permission for a stage adaptation of the book because he was “afraid [the producer] will play it for laughs”. This seems strange at first; it’s obvious that this is a comic novel. But there’s also something very recognisable about Laarmans’ panic.

Logically I know that this feeling of being completely out of one’s depth (professionally and personally), of constantly teetering on the edge of utter failure has plagued people of every generation. Yet it seems somehow remarkable to me that Cheese was published in 1933. When Laarmans procrastinates over selling his cheese and focuses instead on the minutiae of setting up his office (the perfect desk, the right sort of typewriter, the ideal letterhead) I know exactly what he is doing. His conviction that everyone around him somehow knows more than he does about what he is doing is a form of Imposter Syndrome – it’s clear (though not to Laarmans) that most of them are as far out of their depth as he is. Then there’s the constant self-consciousness, and Laarmans’ need to justify his own reactions at all times. At his mother’s deathbed at the beginning of the book  he is preoccupied throughout the proceedings with questions of how much grief he should show and how people will judge him for the amount he does display.

It’s this familiarity that makes it clear to me how vulnerable Laarmans is, so that when he adopts a more pompous tone (he often attempts to patronise his wife) it’s clear to me what he is doing.

There are no unhappy endings here, despite the fact that disaster seems imminent for most of the book. But Elsschot was right; this isn’t just a comedy. Laarmans’ panic is familiar and all too real.

 

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